Wellington, March 13, 2020
The first anniversary this coming weekend of the brutal, tragic Christchurch Mosque slayings will be a difficult and bitterly sad occasion for so many people – the families of the victims, obviously, but also the recovery and medical teams involved, the Police and the other community leaders who played their part on that fateful day.
For most of us, it is still hard to imagine events like that taking place in New Zealand, even though they were now nearly a year ago.
In the immediate aftermath, the country seemed to come together as one, with the near universal vow that something like that should never be allowed to happen here again.
Much was said at the time about how we needed to unite as never before to make that a reality, and there seemed to be a genuine spirit about doing so.
Now, as we mark that first anniversary, it is worth looking at the progress made, and how we as a society may have changed to prevent a repetition of such awful events in the future. Sadly, despite the bold proclamations of the time, the resulting scorecard has been somewhat mixed.
The most dramatic commitment made was to clean up New Zealand’s cumbersome and lax firearms laws, to prevent dangerous weapons falling into the hands of cold-blooded terrorists like the Christchurch attacker ever again.
A ban on semi-automatic weapons – the easiest bit of the jigsaw – was quickly achieved, but the rest of the package has struggled somewhat.
The weapons buyback scheme appears to have had mixed results – a significant number of weapons have been handed in, but the suspicion remains that a large of numbers of weapons and components are still out there, unaccounted for.
The next phase, the firearms register, has gone nowhere. Proposals to establish the register have stalled and are unlikely to be passed through Parliament any time soon, if at all.
So, at best, the promised bold firearms policy gets a bare pass mark, and is unlikely to deter a determined terrorist from a similar attack in the future.
Commission of Inquiry
Next was the promise of a comprehensive Royal Commission of Inquiry to examine all aspects of the tragedy, including the performance of the security and intelligence services and whether they were paying sufficient attention to the presence and activities of extremist right-wing groups.
Because of the perceived urgency, the Royal Commission was told to report back its findings by the end of last year.
However, not surprisingly, the enormity of the task has proved impossible to achieve according to the original timeframe and the deadline for its report has now been extended to April 2020.
To use NCEA parlance, the Royal Commission gets a “Not Achieved” at this point.
Meantime, disturbing claims have emerged from the Islamic Women’s Council about how various concerns of rising Islamophobia and the risks it posed they had been raising with the State Services Commission and other official agencies have been ignored.
This, and the lack of apparent change in the way the intelligence services are now going about their business, raises important questions about official attitudes before and after the attacks. This in turn puts further pressure on the Royal Commission.
Another element that was focused on immediately after the attacks was the role of online communications and websites.
While the Christchurch Call has made some progress on the international front in drawing attention to the concern and seeking the engagement of the likes of Google and Facebook to better moderate the content on their platforms, there still remain too many instances where objectionable online material has been able to be streamed in exactly the same way as before.
So, while the Christchurch Call probably rates at least a B+ for its intent, the unsatisfactory practical consequences rate at around a D, leaving the overall rating on this score at about C to C+.
On top of this, and despite the pious good intent of the time, it is now clear that not a lot has changed in terms of improving public tolerance and respect for diversity over the last year.
This week alone there have been reports of neo-Nazi groups becoming more active, and there was the incident of alleged homophobic conduct by a Police Officer in the wake of Wellington’s Pride Parade. Last week, there was the Court case involving the person who had made fresh threats against the Al Noor Mosque in Christchurch.
Over the course of the last year there have been a number of incidents reported across the country of racial slurs being cast, or discrimination made against people on ethnic grounds. And there has even been the case of a senior Cabinet Minister making racist and inflammatory comments on a number of occasions and suffering no sanction for his remarks.
Our society still seems to be as challenged as it ever was in terms of accepting the need for tolerance and diversity, with the brief coming together after Christchurch being clearly no more than a mere blip.
So, it will be another D on that account.
Overall then, as we reflect upon last year’s horrific attacks, the scoresheet is not especially promising, barely a pass mark and probably a fail on the commitments made a year ago.
As we recall the events of March 15, 2019, we should also realise that collectively we have so far failed the memory of all those who were killed, wounded and otherwise scarred for life.
For the second anniversary in 2021 to prove worthy and pay true tribute to them, we all need to improve our response considerably.
More action, less pontification would be a good starting point.
Peter Dunne was a Minister in the Labour and National-led governments between 1999 and 2017. He lives in Auckland.